Mofaz walks, coalition crumbles, elections nigh

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 19, 2012

Shaul Mofaz's announcement on Tuesday afternoon that Kadima was leaving the coalition, after only 70 days of partnership with Likud, was the opening shot for an almost certain 2013 general election. Both Mr Mofaz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are now heading to the polls seriously weakened.

The two party leaders entered their brief cohabitation with high hopes. The prime minister entertained the prospect of ruling Israel for a year with an unstoppable grand coalition that commanded more than three-quarters of the Knesset, giving him the chance to push through reforms and cement his legacy.

Kadima's new leader believed he would get the credit for these reforms, especially a new law regulating the national service of yeshivah students, and would build himself as a credible candidate for the premiership.

Both now emerge without any achievements and their leadership eroded, within their parties and among the voters.

Mr Netanyahu's image as a hesitant and untrustworthy politician has been reinforced, and he will now fight these elections, in which middle-class, secular voters will be crucial, as the man perceived to have bowed to Charedi demands that their sons remain exempt from the IDF draft. His only comfort is that his rivals are divided and weak.

Mr Mofaz, who reneged on his earlier promise to lead the social protests against the government, has nothing to show now for his 10 weeks as deputy prime minister.

While he may have gained public sympathy for refusing to agree to Mr Netanyahu's compromises with the Charedi leadership, his conduct has been weak and vacillating. He faces rebellions on both wings of his party, with some Kadima MKs plotting to stay in the coalition and others planning to break away and join a new party headed by previous Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.

Nationally, Mr Mofaz is now seen as a weak politician, easily outmanoeuvered by Bibi. He has lost the mantle for leader of the opposition - with at least four others vying for it.

Labour's Shelly Yachimovich, the official head of the opposition for the past 70 days, has failed to capitalise on the national-service crisis, her voice barely being heard in the debate - but she still believes that a new wave of social protests can sweep her to electoral gains.

Political newcomer Yair Lapid, forced prematurely into the fray, was seen as the big loser when the Netanyahu-Mofaz coalition was formed but he now has a chance to assert himself and his steadfast opposition to concessions to the Charedi parties. He is the only party leader who can present himself now as a non-politician.

Mr Netanyahu is also under threat from the right, with Avigdor Lieberman gunning for him. Mr Lieberman played a cautious game, sticking to his tough positions on the Charedi draft, while not rocking the coalition boat. Come the elections, he will remind right-wing voters which candidate did not waver

Last updated: 2:53pm, July 19 2012